Institution: University of Edinburgh

Author: Steven Crawford Grundy

On the 25th March, 1807 the British government under Lord Grenville passed the Slave Trade Act, thereby abolishing the slave trade throughout its Empire. Academic debate has underlined several reasons why women began campaigning against slavery. On the one hand, Quirk and Richardson emphasize an interconnection between urbanization and the antislavery movement. Walvin, on the other hand, stresses propaganda as a crucial instrument in persuading women to embrace antislavery sentiments.

Brown, alternatively, claims that occurrences within the British Empire initiated the antislavery effort. Finally, Midgley underlines the importance of individual thoughts and beliefs as a crucial strand in explaining females’ decision to oppose the slave trade. The following analysis will establish a causal hierarchy and conjoin the arguments in a pecking order to explain why women enlisted in the antislavery cause between 1787 and 1807.

In order to understand why women began campaigning against the slave trade it is essential to correlate the antislavery movement with broader transformations within British society. Quirk and Richardson notably highlight the importance of urbanization. Eighteenth-century Britain witnessed an extraordinary increase in towns and cities. Developing metropolises, such as Manchester, mushroomed all over the country as migrants flocked to the conurbations in search of jobs.

The inhabitants of towns and cities multiplied. Birmingham’s population, for instance, trebled between 1750 and 1801. Urban life also brought with it new opportunities for women. In seaside resorts like Brighton, women became lodging-house keepers or ran coffee shops. Teaching was another significant job for middle-class women, especially if they were single. Likewise, Mancunian trade directories show an increase in female economic activity. The number of trading women listed rose from 56 in 1773 to 392 in 1804. More importantly, Tilly highlights the emergence of mass politics. Urbanization gradually dismantled the aristocratic hegemony and generated a growing public sphere.

Extra-parliamentary associations and webs of fraternities were unknown in 1750 but had become common practice by 1780. It is no surprise then that female advocates of abolitionism primarily stemmed from the metropolitan middle classes. In short, urbanization offered an environment in which opposition to slavery could be transformed into a truly nationwide campaign. The seeds of national popular mobilization were thusly geminating.

In conjunction with this argument, Walvin asserts that there was an important link between abolitionism and the Industrial Revolution. More specifically, a new art of politics surfaced- the art of propaganda. The Abolition Society (formed in 1787 by Clarkson and Sharp) successfully adopted this modern utensil and employed both the spoken and written word as instruments for their cause.

Lectures and public addresses not only entertained and excited spectators but also presented abolitionists with the opportunity of breaking down class and gender structures. Antislavery spokesmen, notably the Scottish writer Dickson, penetrated areas of society incapable of mastering the rudiments of literacy. The spoken word was particularly important for women. Only about 40% of British females were literate and a large majority therefore had to rely on verbal presentations. Indeed, orators often remarked on the presence of women in the audience, hence underlining its domestic success.

Then again, the fruition of the printing press was significant too. Davidoff and Hull emphasize the rapid growth in newspapers and books during the Industrial Revolution. By the 1780’s there were fifty national newspapers in England alone and it was not unusual for a provincial tabloid to be selling three-thousand copies per week. Furthermore, the Abolitionist Society’s decision in 1787 to publish cheap tracts and to circulate them among their friends and contacts throughout the country set in motion a major and highly successful propaganda campaign. Antislavery propaganda even entered children’s literature. A case in point was the children’s book Little Truths by Darton which devoted two pages to describing the inhumanity of the slave trade.

As women were primarily responsible for the upbringing and education of their children, they read such books to their offspring and consequently furthered their own awareness of the slavery problem. More importantly, antislavery propaganda did not exclusively target men. For the first time, as Midgley highlights, women were accepted as a constituent of the public.

The earliest public appeal to women was published on the 6th November, 1787 in the Manchester Mercury. The writer urged ladies to engage in the public opportunity for charitable work by adding their names to a published subscription list which would help cover the cost of antislavery petitioning in parliament. Likewise, the Abolition Committee invited females to write didactic poems in support of the campaign and thus helped entrench the active engagement of British ladies within the movement.

It is worth pausing to consider the significance of this male-sanctioned feminization of the abolitionist appeal. Midgley is undoubtedly right to suggest that the request may have been intended to forestall an anticipated counterattack from pro-slavery factions. Likewise, the decision to integrate women into the movement was partially in reaction to parliament’s decisive trouncing of Wilberforce’s first motion to abolish the British slave trade in 1791. But these explanations do not acknowledge the sudden importance of female succour; particularly in food boycotts.  This argument is fleshed out further by Sussman’s examination of female abstention of sugar.

The British antislavery movement was one of the first to identify the political power of consumer activity. This connection centred on the assumption that the consumer’s discretion to abstain from buying certain commodities could in fact be used as a lever to transform ethical beliefs. This is where women’s participation became essential. It was within the domestic sphere that women obtained the opportunity to seize the initiative and influence the people around them. It was women who held the responsibility for household purchases and decided on family consumptions. And so it was women who decided whether to buy slave goods. Indeed, the apocryphal tale of the man returning home to find that his wife had “entirely left off the use of sugar and banished it from the tea table,” hints at an important reality; boycotting placed women at the forefront.

It would be tempting, therefore, to draw a straight line between the Industrial Revolution and the rise of the female antislavery movement in Britain. The women campaign against slavery was a corollary of urbanization and propaganda.  This temptation should be resisted. Whilst the Industrial Revolution did inflame awareness of the question it did not automatically compel women to crusade against the slave trade. Besides, women were likewise bombarded by pro-slavery propaganda.

In 1792, for example, The Observer gave an excellent reason for the continuance of slavery: “What was the condition of slaves in Africa before the several nations of Europe opened a commerce on that coast? By means of the Slave Trade we actually preserve the lives of thousands.” Finally, as Brown points out, there is a fundamental difference between being aware of an issue and the decision to act against it. More was needed.

What did change women’s approach to antislavery was the maelstrom of international events. Most notably, Brown highlights the imperial context as an element for the British antislavery campaign. He places particular emphasis on the American Revolutionary War. The conflict, he argues, directed unprecedented attention to the moral character of colonial institutions and imperial practices. This crisis in British imperial authority catalysed a new outlook towards slavery. It elicited fresh pertinence to what had been a question of marginal interest. However, increasing support for antislavery was tied to the experience of defeat in a special way.

Antislavery became an emblem of national virtue; a patriotic act. This nationalistic upsurge is personified best by Helen Williams. In Letters From France she pleaded patriotically for “the honour, the spirit, the generosity of Englishmen who will surely call for an end to the trade.” Previous to defeat in America, opposition to the slave trade had seemed incompatible with national interest. In the aftermath of 1776, however, antislavery was increasingly seized on as a means to redeem the nation.

Likewise, traveller’s accounts of slavery within the Empire promoted further discussion of the problem. Anna Falconbridge for example, wrote a blistering critique about life in Sierra Leone and painted a dystopian picture of the British slave trade. The slave trade consequently transformed from an indispensable body of British economics into an ugly symbol of malevolence. Here, as Oldfield notes, was the catalyst that abolitionists had been looking for.

The imperial perspective of the antislavery movement is invaluable. But this evidence does not fully explain the origins of the female decision to challenge the slave trade either; rather it begs the fundamental question what advantages women recognized in joining the antislavery campaign. True, British patriotism and sympathy for the slaves undoubtedly changed female perceptions towards the slave industry. But it does not follow that they would actively support antislavery because of mere empathy.

Haskall thusly points out; “For women… the key question remains why… passive sympathy for slaves gave way in the eighteenth century to active opposition to the institution of slavery.” Of course, the Industrial Revolution, the upsurge in abolitionist propaganda and cracks within the Empire helped magnify the slavery question. Yet it required a female response to bring a women’s antislavery crusade to pass.

The reasons why individual women campaigned against the slave trade was primarily because they perceived it as an opportunity to further their own ideals. This argument is embodied by the most distinguished women in the antislavery movement; Mary Wollstonecraft and Hannah More. On the one hand, Wollstonecraft was a radical. Her most famous work, A Vindication of the Rights of Women is the best-known expression of eighteenth-century feminism. Influenced by Enlightenment thinking, the author expounded the doctrine of natural rights, to which the slave trade was deemed an antithesis.

More importantly, Wollstonecraft utilized the analogy between women and slaves in order to challenge female suppression. This comparison was shaped particularly by the French Revolution in 1789 as well as the successful slave uprising in San Domingo two years later. Wollstonecraft, moreover, claimed that the historical suppression of women is linked to male desire for political and social power. Wollstonecraft therefore merged the oppression of white women and black female slaves further.

She accordingly asked; “Is one half of the human species, like the poor African slaves, to be subject to prejudices that brutalize them… only to sweeten the cup of man?” Ferguson interestingly points out that by exemplifying male oppression of women, Wollstonecraft accorded all women with a group identity. Her purpose in campaigning against the slave trade was hence to centre-stage the question of sexuality in gender relations and highlight the ubiquity of abuse of both slaves and women within the British Empire. For Wollstonecraft therefore feminism and antislavery went hand-in-hand.

Alternatively, Hannah More’s critique of slavery was embedded in her Christian faith. From 1787, the year of her Evangelical conversion, she was closely involved in Wilberforce’s group, the Clapham ‘Saints,’ who advocated the moral and spiritual regeneration of society through political action. Furthermore, More maintained a strong conviction in British providence. In her most famous work, The Slave Trade: A Poem, More underscored Britain as the chosen nation with a special destiny. She threw into sharp focus the terrible contradiction of Britain simultaneously being the freest nation and the leading slave trader;

“Shall Britain, where the soul of Freedom reigns  Forge chains for others she herself disdains?”

Hence, More, akin to men like Wilberforce and Newton, perceived abolitionism as a means to legitimize Britain’s entitlement to be the arbiter of both the civilized and uncivilized world. Nonetheless, patriotism was only one strand in her decision to join the antislavery movement. More crucial was her determination to spread the word of God. The commitment to advancing Evangelical Protestantism gave the campaign against the slave trade a special value.

Most of all, the campaign against the slave trade allowed her and Evangelicals a chance to win over those otherwise suspicious of campaigns against vice. Brown puts it perfectly; “Abolitionism… could operate as an opening wedge, a Trojan horse that might breach the walls of infidelity for the cause of godliness. Hannah More hence perceived the antislavery campaign as a means to further Christian ethos.

Sceptic readers might dismiss this contention by arguing that More and Wollstonecraft were exceptions. However, the surprising fact is that they were not. True, the context of war with revolutionary France coupled with considerable rumblings in Ireland prompted a governmental clampdown on radical activism. Nonetheless, not all radical women were deterred from speaking out. Notably Mary Robinson drew on her own experiences of male ill-treatment.

After terminating a long relationship with Tarleton, a distinguished pro-slavery MP and hero of the colonial war in North America, Robinson articulated an increasingly, radical and abolitionist political position. In A Letter to the Women of England in 1799 the author, akin to Wollstonecraft, employed Hegel’s stadial theory as well as analogies of slavery to emphasize the intellectual inequality of women. She similarly advocated improvements in female education and warned men that women “will not be your slaves.” Consequently, More and Wollstonecraft were not the only women who employed the antislavery movement to elevate their own ideals.

With the benefit of hindsight it becomes clear that women campaigned against the slave trade for myriads of reasons. First of all, it was urbanization that made a female antislavery campaign possible. Cities and towns throughout Britain provided women with the opportunity to experience innovative ideas and it is no surprise that antislavery advocates, like Wollstonecraft and More, lived in conurbations (London and Bristol respectively) which were predominantly involved in the slave trade. The headline effect of the Industrial Revolution therefore was to transform the relationship between the British people and the world in which they lived. Secondly, antislavery propaganda made women aware of the immorality of the slave trade.

More importantly, the use of boycotts made women participation central. As the purchasers of food goods in the family women were urgently needed by the antislavery movement to abstain from buying slave merchandize. Thirdly, the loss of the American colony propelled a female reconsideration of the British Empire and gave the question a sense of exigent importance. Yet, as Midgley stresses, macro-historical explanations ought not to eclipse the complexity of individuals own reasons and beliefs. As a result, Hannah More, Mary Wollstonecraft and other ladies within the antislavery movement did not perceive their advocacy of abolitionism as an end in itself but rather as a means to further their own dogma.


Primary Sources


‘African Slavery,’ The Observer, 8 July 1792

Official Publications

More, H., Works of Hannah More, Vol. V (London, 1837)

Williams, H., Letters From France, Vol.1 (New York, 1975)


Sewell, M., ‘An Appeal to English Women,’ Wilson Anti-Slavery Collection, Box 5, No.20, (1800)  

Secondary Sources

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Midgley, C., (eds.) Gender and Imperialism (New York, 1998)

Midgley, C., Women Against Slavery: The British Campaigns, 1780-1870 (London, 1992)

Oldfield, J., Popular Politics and British Anti-Slavery: The Mobilisation of Public Opinion against the Slave Trade, 1787-1807 (New York, 1995)

Quirk, J., and Richardson, D., ‘Religion, Urbanisation and Anti-Slavery Mobilisation in Britain, 1787-1833,’ European Journal of English Studies, pp.263-279 (2010)

Stott, A., Hannah More: The First Victorian (Oxford, 2003)

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Tilly, C., Popular Contention in Great Britain, 1758-1834 (Cambridge, 2005)

Walvin, J., (eds.) Slavery and British Society, 1776-1846 (London, 1982)

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